Having watched Maryland schools for years from across the Delaware border, state Superintendent Lillian M. Lowery is well-positioned to step into the shoes of Nancy S. Grasmick, who led the Maryland Department of Education for two decades.
“We [in Delaware] shamelessly followed what Maryland was doing, in [Advanced Placement participation], in early childhood education,” Lowery said. “So when I had the opportunity to come here, it was one that I was really privileged to have.”
But Maryland Board of Education members say they’re not looking for her to be another Grasmick, who was widely praised as the state accumulated education honors.
“Instead of looking behind, she’s looking forward, and is going to be wearing her own shoes, not filling someone else’s,” said board vice president Mary Kay Finan.
Since Lowery started the job in July, taking over from interim superintendent Bernard J. Sandusky, she has spent a lot of time on the road, said Willian Reinhard, spokesman for the department.
She has visited each of the state’s 24 school districts, met in Annapolis with lawmakers who ultimately will decide the department’s funding, and participated in forums and conferences around the state and in Washington, D.C.
“Her job isn’t in any one office,” said Reinhard, adding with a laugh that “it makes her hard to get a hold of.”
“I’m making sure I’m getting to know the system,” Lowery said of her first months on the job. “We have amazing state leadership.”
The focus for Lowery is keeping Maryland’s No. 1-ranked state education on course, she told members of the Joint Committee on Children, Youth and Families in Annapolis on Sept. 19, her first time before the committee.
“I’m not here to make a name and shake things up, because Maryland is on the right track,” Lowery said.
Whether or not she invites the comparison, it’s inevitable that at some point she will be measured against Grasmick, said Michael Hickey, director of the Center for Leadership in Education at Towson University.
“She will be compared by other people, but she’s going into the job with the right mindset,” Hickey said. “She’s not trying to be a clone of Dr. Grasmick.”
The comparison is most likely to come as she hits her one-year mark in office, when test scores for the Maryland School Assessments — the statewide standardized tests known as MSAs — come out for the 2013 school year.
Lowery had barely moved into her office when the 2012 scores were released in July. The scores showed a continued upward trend among elementary school students — 88.2 percent were proficient in reading and 87.7 in math. And middle school math scores jumped more than two points, with 76.2 percent of students proficient. Only middle school reading scores declined, falling by 1.4 percentage points, to 82.1 percent of middle schoolers scoring proficient or better.
“The MSA scores are on everyone’s radar,” Hickey said. “But that’s a very shallow criteria on which to judge.”
Another shallow number is the much-ballyhooed No. 1 ranking the state has received from Education Week the past four years, Hickey said.
“It’s a beauty contest, and it was a great way for Dr. Grasmick to go out of office, but at some point it’s going to go away,” Hickey said of the ranking, noting any number of factors could vault another state to the top of the heap.
“If it happens on Dr. Lowery’s watch, she’ll get the blame for it, but it won’t be any kind of real assessment on her,” he said.
A bigger challenge is likely doing something about the wide achievement gaps between white and minority students.
In every grade in every tested subject, black students trail white students in proficiency by more than 10 points. In a majority of those categories, the gap is closer to or exceeds 20 points. The divide between white and Hispanic students is slightly smaller, but just as persistent.
Lowery has her eye on the gap and is looking to narrow it, along with the performance disparity between general education students and students with disabilities.
After 20 years as a teacher and administrator in Virginia schools — 16 of those in Fairfax County — Lowery became superintendent of Delaware’s Department of Education in 2009, overseeing the state’s 130,000 students and 212 schools.
More than 854,000 students are enrolled in Maryland schools.
“[Lowery] is the rare combination of a practiced educator, who has been in nearly every role in the education system and knows it inside out, and a forward thinker who sees the whole picture,” said Rebecca Taber, who worked as chief performance officer under Lowery and is now education policy adviser for Delaware Gov. Jack A. Markell. “She’s probably one of the most desired administrators in the country because of that.”
That experience makes Lowery particularly suited to enact the education reforms taking shape in systems across the country, including new curricula and teacher evaluations, Taber said. Those reforms are setting Lowery’s priorities for Maryland schools.
The state is moving to implement the Common Core curriculum standards, which Lowery said add a lot more rigor much earlier in a student’s academic life.
“I’ve seen third-graders multiplying and dividing fractions,” Lowery said of places where Common Core curriculums are being tested.
Another priority is enacting new teacher evaluations. Last year, seven school districts piloted portions of the evaluations, and this year all 24 districts are testing parts of the new system. Although each district will have some flexibility on how it implements the new metrics, a portion of all teacher evaluations will be based on student test scores.
The changes are putting in effect a plan that secured the state $250 million in federal funding from Race to the Top — the Obama administration’s answer to No Child Left Behind — under Grasmick’s leadership.
Lowery has a leg up on most of the nation’s public school leaders when it comes to school reform; Delaware was one of the first states to receive Race to the Top grants, and so was a year ahead of Maryland in enacting the required changes.
That experience is one of the reasons she was offered the job, Finan said.
“She has a depth of knowledge about Race to the Top, and she’s up to date on what we need,” Finan said.
Lowery also has to continue distributing money to districts for “turnaround schools,” those that persistently underachieve. Since 2010, the U.S. Department of Education has granted Maryland more than $60 million for such schools.
Lowery has set metrics to measure the success of reforms. She wants to see the statewide graduation rate climb from its current 82 percent of high school seniors to 88 percent by 2016, when her first four-year contract expires. In the same time frame, she wants to cut the dropout rate by more than half — from 5 percent to 2.4 percent.
When Lowery started her new position in the summer she had company — five local school system superintendents also were just beginning their tenures, adding to five who came on board in 2011. More than half of the state’s superintendents have been on the job four years or less, a fact that Lowery says is exciting, not troubling.
“I love it, because then we don’t talk about what we’ve always done,” she said.